“I tried to create a visual experience, one that bypasses verbalized pigeon-holing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content . . . just as music does.” —Stanley Kubrick, on 2001
Before I ever stepped into a concert hall, before I even really knew what classical music was, I was in thrall with the "Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey," Stanley Kubrick's 1968 sci-fi epic. The music comes right at the opening credits: from a low guttural drone emerges three ascending trumpet tones, followed by two chords from the full orchestra and the steady beat of timpani. The sequence is repeated three times before unleashing a Promethean fanfare that evokes sheer wonder and awe, setting the stage for what is to come.
As I later found out, 2001's "theme" had another name: Also Sprach Zarathustra, a tone poem written in 1896 by Richard Strauss. 2001 was also my first encounter with Johann Strauss' Blue Danube, which accompanies numerous scenes of interplanetary vessels and celestial bodies floating through space. And it would be more than a decade before I knew who wrote the creepy, otherworldly music that played each time the ominous Monolith appeared (György Ligeti, who later sued Warner Brothers for neglecting to ask his permission).
Originally, 2001 was set to an original score by veteran Hollywood composer Alex North. But, Kubrick threw out North's score in favor of the classical works, which apparently had been his intention all along. According to Roger Ebert, Kubrick made the right choice: “The classical music chosen by Kubrick succeeds because it exists outside the action. It uplifts. It wants to be sublime; it brings a seriousness and transcendence to the visuals." (You can read the rest of Ebert's trenchant thoughts on 2001's music on RogerEbert.com)
Last night, the New York Philharmonic performed the music of 2001: A Space Odyssey live while the entire film screened above the stage. (The Phil imported the production from the Philharmonia in London, who first presented it in 2010.) The idea of presenting live film accompaniment can be credited to Executive Director Matthew VanBesien, who is now in his second season and just starting to put his stamp on things at the Phil. At his last post in Melbourne, VanBesien stacked the season with live audiovisual concerts, including a "Dr. Who Symphonic Spectacular" and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Such concerts have become staples at many orchestras around the world because of their popular appeal, if not necessarily their artistic ambition.
But the New York Philharmonic is not the Melbourne Symphony, and fortunately VanBesien had the ear of Hollywood veteran—and NY Phil broadcaster—Alec Baldwin to lean on as an advisor. It's not entirely clear what film music was originally suggested for the Philharmonic's inaugural film week (dubbed "The Art of the Score"), but in the end Baldwin, VanBesien, and music director Alan Gilbert made the right choice. "When everyone settled on 2001," Baldwin writes in the program, "I thought I might faint." (Earlier in the week, the Phil played along to excerpts from Hitchcock films, which was relatively well received.)
Gilbert himself conducted last night's performance, which played to a sold-out house filled with a largely young, stylish audience that the Phil would kill to have every night. What Gilbert may have lacked in onstage charisma he made up for in fidelity, yielding an engaging, occasionally electric performance while keeping his tempo in sync with the film. Although the orchestra and chorus (Musica Sacra, conducted by Kent Tritle) sat silent for long stretches, no one seemed in the least bit disinterested: everyone, Gilbert included, watched the film as raptly as the rest of us. Kubrick, who was born in the Bronx and was a major classical buff, no doubt would have been tickled to hear his hometown orchestra play along to his masterpiece.
The Philharmonic, which has seen success in the past several seasons with semistaged productions, seems to be embracing the contemporary audience's need for visual stimuli. My only regret is that we have to wait a whole other year before the Phil's next live film accompaniment. Maybe VanBesien and Gilbert can think of some other uses for that massive screen between now and then. (Hint: take a look at what's happening in Brooklyn.)